AUSTIN — Despite a warning from Texas’ attorney general, Austin’s mayor is still continuing his threat to punish local businesses who don’t obey his questionably legal new order.
Last week, Democrat Mayor Steve Adler announced his extended stay-at-home order, in which he “encourages” restaurants and businesses of 75 capacity or less to record an “activity log” of all customers that come in; the log would include collecting contact information, the date and time of visit, and even tracking where customers sit.
Though keeping a log isn’t mandatory, a business could potentially pay a devastating price if they don’t obey: the city government can determine if that business was exposed to the coronavirus and has unlimited power to publish their names to the public.
The order also continued Adler’s decree to prohibit all public and private gatherings, shut down all “non-essential” businesses, and mandated all citizens over the age of six to “wear some form of face covering” when going out in public.
Violating the order “may be punishable through criminal enforcement,” with citizens potentially being fined up to $1,000 or even thrown in jail for six months.
Adler announced his decree despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order that allows some businesses to slowly reopen and prohibits local officials from enacting mask mandates, jail time, or other restrictions and criminal punishments. Adler did recognize that limitation in his decree, saying “no civil or criminal penalty” can be given to those who don’t wear masks, but he still included criminal punishments in the order.
On Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office sent a letter to Adler and other local officials across the state who’ve enacted similar decrees, warning them to stop their “unlawful” orders and calling the various mandates “void,” “invalid,” and “unenforceable.”
“Unfortunately, a few Texas counties and cities seem to have confused recommendations with requirements and have grossly exceeded state law to impose their own will on private citizens and businesses,” said Paxton.
Paxton’s letter also called out Adler for his “Orwellian” threat to businesses.
“Although the order only seems to recommend for these restaurants to track their employees and customers, it forces restaurants into submission by threatening to release the names of restaurants who do not comply,” the letter reads.
However, Adler and other officials responded defiantly on Tuesday, wanting to continue their orders and Adler’s threat to businesses. The mayor said that Paxton warning him to stop imposing unlawful edicts on citizens was “politicizing” the situation.
“Up to this point, we have avoided the naked politicization of the virus crisis. I will not follow the AG down that road,” Adler said in a statement.
“Our initial thought is we disagree with the Attorney General,” said leftist-controlled Travis County, where Austin is located.
“I continue to believe and maintain that our order is consistent and complementary to the governor’s order,” Adler continued.
“I just don’t know why this happened, but it’s unfortunate,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who called Paxton’s warning a “love letter.”
Democrat San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Paxton was seeking a “cheap political headline” by calling out local officials for their authoritarian and questionably legal decrees.
However, citizens are concerned over the edicts—particularly, Adler’s threat to businesses. Emily Williams Knight, president of the Texas Restaurant Association, wrote a letter to the mayor expressing her concern and opposition to his activity log order.
“We oppose [the activity logs] because it won’t improve public health and safety, shifts what should be a public health responsibility onto the backs of small businesses, and creates serious practical concerns surrounding privacy, customer expectations, and liability,” Knight wrote.
Knight also pointed out how the mayor’s order isn’t even effective for achieving his stated goal of broad contact tracing, because the order excludes larger businesses such as grocery stores and home improvement stores from having to track customers.
“We understand that the customer log provisions … are framed as a suggestion rather than a requirement, but when a small business’s choices are to keep a customer log or risk being publicly shamed for having a case of COVID-19, the business doesn’t have much of a choice. And we have to be honest that public shaming is exactly what will happen, even if that is not the intent. Many will assume a restaurant that is identified with COVID-19 cases was somehow at fault, even if the person who contracted COVID-19 went to 10 other businesses that same day.”
“This just isn’t going to work,” said Skeeter Miller, owner of the County Line and president of the Greater Austin Restaurant Association.
Paxton’s office added that there could be legal action against local officials if they remain obstinate to continue their “unlawful” actions.
“We trust you will act quickly to correct mistakes like these to avoid further confusion and litigation challenging the county’s and city’s unconstitutional and unlawful restrictions.”